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28 February 2000

Wilson is still rated higher than Blair

100 years of Labour - We asked MPs to rank party leaders and name their favourites among th

By Staff Blogger

Almost nobody will be surprised to learn that, in the view of Labour MPs, Clement Attlee was the best party leader of the past 100 years, nor that Ramsay MacDonald, author of the “great betrayal” of 1931, is judged the worst. Perhaps more unexpected is Harold Wilson’s second place, with John Smith narrowly edging out Tony Blair for third place. And the best leader that Labour never had (or, rather, hasn’t so far had)? Gordon Brown, just ahead of Denis Healey.

The MPs were responding to the New Statesman‘s centenary survey. We sent questionnaires to every Labour MP, with guaranteed anonymity for their answers (indeed, the answer sheet didn’t even have a space for their names), and we got 80 replies. This represents a response rate of slightly under 20 per cent – not bad, considering that Millbank forbids MPs to respond to questionnaires of any description. Tribune thought we were “naughty” to send a questionnaire at all, and several MPs observed that some of our questions – such as asking what the Labour Party should be called in the 21st century – were deliberate attempts to make mischief. We deny all such suggestions and, while we can make no claim that our survey reflects a cross-section of the parliamentary party, we would say that Millbank has only itself to blame if ministers and the more loyalist backbenchers are underpresented.

We asked the respondents to rank the 12 leaders of the Labour Party in order of which they thought were the best. We then scored the results, giving 12 points for first place, 11 for second and so on. The results are listed in the table.

Blair’s fourth place hides the extremes of opinion that he provoked. One MP put just a nervous little tick beside his name and omitted to rank any of the other leaders. Another put him firmly in 12th place, below even MacDonald. Wilson’s second place is not so surprising when you think that he won four out of the nine elections that Labour has ever won, and that two of the others were won by MacDonald. Smith had the advantage that he never fought an election as leader (though many blamed his performance as shadow chancellor for the 1992 defeat), and Keir Hardie that he wasn’t expected to win one. That leaves Neil Kinnock as the most popular of the losers, well ahead of James Callaghan. The second question gave ten names of prominent Labour politicians and asked which of them, in the opinion of MPs, could have been a successful leader. Again the results are listed in the table. Healey can be proud of his performance: not only did he very nearly beat the present Chancellor, but he also got almost three times as many votes as Tony Benn, his rival in the great deputy leadership battle of 1981. Those who argue that, as chancellor in 1976, Healey actually presided over the premature death of the Labour Party (see Brian Brivati, page 37) may find further resonance in this result.

It should be recorded that one MP “wrote in” John Prescott and that another protested because we had failed to include any women in our list. Indeed, and apologies are due particularly to Barbara Castle, who would surely have scored highly.

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Our third question asked: “Of which event or achievement in Labour Party history are you personally most proud?” Unsurprisingly, 63 out of our 80 respondents named the NHS. The others that got more than a single vote were the minimum wage, the welfare state, the 1945 government and the abolition of the death penalty.

The fourth question – “Of which event or action are you most ashamed?” – produced a far wider spread of answers. Only four things stood out: the 1931 betrayal and the support for the United States in the Vietnam war got seven nominations each, while Kosovo (and the bombing of Serbia) and the 1980s conference battles got five each.

A long list of events got one or two nominations each, including nuclear weapons testing, new Labour’s benefit cuts, tuition fees, the 1968 Kenyan Asians Bill, the Dome, the replacement of the former Clause Four, continued privatisation and even Jack Straw, if you can call him an event.

The fifth question asked what the Labour Party should be called in the 21st century: our suggestions included New Labour Party (three votes), Democratic Labour Party (one vote) and Social Democratic Party (one vote). But the overwhelming majority of MPs wanted to stick with Labour Party.

Their responses to our final question – “Should Labour merge with the Liberal Democrats?” – were equally steadfast, or unadventurous, depending on how you look at it. Of the 80 respondents, 64 ticked “never”. Only one MP wanted to merge as soon as possible, two within the next parliament, one within the next ten years, two within the next 20 years. There were three “don’t knows” and three “depends”.

NS questionnaire results

Ratings of Labour leaders (by points)
1. Clement Attlee 803
2. Harold Wilson 672
3. John Smith 606
4. Tony Blair 589
5. Keir Hardie 487
6. Neil Kinnock 413
7. James Callaghan 269
8. Hugh Gaitskell 244
9. George Lansbury 190
10. Michael Foot 179
11. Arthur Henderson 177
12. Ramsay MacDonald 90

Who would have been a successful leader (by nominations)
1. Gordon Brown 58
2 .Denis Healey 55
3. Aneurin Bevan 47
4. Ernest Bevin 25
5. Tony Benn 20
6. Robin Cook 17
7. Stafford Cripps 16
8. Herbert Morrison 12
9. Roy Jenkins 8
10. George Brown 2

Results analysed by Natalie Brierley